Bad marketing examples continued – and how to avoid them

Following on from Shona’s post last week, this time we hear from Claudia Kozeny-Pelling with some more bad marketing examples and what to do if you’ve been duped.

Note from Katie…wait, why the lack of pictures? In an effort to reduce the carbon footprint of my web presence, I am only using images at the very top of my posts, as well as where they serve a true purpose, such as headshots or infographics. That’s why you won’t find any purely decorative photos here anymore.

Ever since launching my business and spending time in social media marketing groups, I’ve encountered a worrying number of unethical marketing tactics that seem to be widely accepted. I’m not saying that businesses or individuals who use these techniques are necessarily “unethical” themselves. Often, they just copy what’s widely done without looking into more ethical alternatives. 

I’m very grateful to have come across ethical marketers and movements, such as Little Green Duck Pond and The Ethical Move, who actively work towards a better way of marketing and selling. 

Together, we can make a difference and build trust and honest relationships with our clients. To do that, let’s call out and reject the following examples of bad marketing! 

Putting pressure on consumers to buy – bad marketing example #1

Recently, I came across a course whose price increased daily during a week-long sale:

  • Monday: £100
  • Tuesday: £200
  • Wednesday: £300


By Saturday, it had reached an eye-watering £600-price tag. Here, the marketer increased a sense of urgency and FOMO (fear of missing out) daily – a new record!

Another manipulative technique along the same lines is to sell a course at a fake “one-time-only reduced offer” of, say, £599. An Instagram acquaintance of mine bought a course like this, thinking it would be a good offer. Not only was it a bad course, but she realised that the same “one-time-only” offer was made again and again over the next year.

How can consumers avoid this?  

Don’t buy if you’re obviously being manipulated. There are other course providers who offer fairer deals.

How can ethical marketers avoid this in their own business?  

Don’t use countdown and false scarcity tactics like these. Set a fair price with a generous deadline (if needed) and stick to it. 

Exploiting FOMO isn’t a good long-term solution in any case. Your dream customers aren’t stupid – they can look through these tactics and will grow tired of them and your business.

Fake reviews for services and products – bad marketing examples #2

A huge number of products and services are marketed to consumers via social media every day. Some of these are fine and worth the money. Many, however, are not. They are also often not sold in an ethical manner.

Prompts or offers that aren’t in the consumer’s best interest are known as ‘dark nudges’. Selling products or services via fake or paid recommendations definitely should be added to this category.

Here are some examples:

a) Some affiliate marketing practices

Certain products and services are highly praised in some online communities. Let’s take the example of a social media marketing course. The course in question, however, may not be as good as expected – especially for the money paid.

Behind the scenes, alumni may receive high incentives to recommend this course to others in their social networks (say, £200 for each successful referral). Now, if course participants are genuinely happy with the content and if the course is reasonably priced, this could be a win-win situation.

Often, however, that’s just not the case. Receiving £200 or more for a recommendation could, nevertheless, be very tempting. Many marketers know and exploit this.

How can consumers avoid this? 

Make sure you do your research. Avoid buying from affiliate marketing links unless: 

  1. You completely trust the person and course provider you’re buying from, and 
  2. It is very clear how much the person will actually get for this referral. 

Plus, if you refer anyone: would you honestly recommend this course to your best friend? If not – don’t.

How can ethical marketers avoid this? 

Ask yourself whether your course provides value for money. Having tested your (affordable!) pilot course, ask your course participants for detailed anonymous feedback, so you get more honest reviews. 

Don’t bribe course participants to market your course for you. A small reward that is openly declared to prospective buyers may be ok. Much more than that is, well, dodgy.

b) Bogus positive or negative product reviews 

There are also examples of fake product reviews on online sites such as Amazon. Some company owners will even buy competitors’ products in order to display a ‘verified purchase’ tag. They then leave dishonest negative reviews in order to force their competitors out of business. Friends or associates of unethical product providers may buy a product and leave fake positive reviews.

How can consumers avoid this? 

Always carry out your research on more than one site. Check out products that have many verified reviews. Extremely positive or negative reviews may not give you the complete picture – usually, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

How can ethical marketers avoid this? 

Never leave or commission fake reviews – whether positive or negative!

c) Dishonest recommendations by paid networks or memberships 

There are several so-called ‘professional’ networks that enforce recommending their members’ services or products to consumers – even if network members have absolutely no idea about the service providers’ quality.

How can consumers avoid this?  

Again, research thoroughly. Ask questions. Has the person recommended the third party actually used the service or product in question? Do you know the person recommending this well?

How can ethical marketers avoid this?  

Don’t recommend anyone unless you have direct, personal knowledge of their service or product, or are very sure that this person is trustworthy. Avoid paying enormous sums of money to network groups. There are good free or affordable alternatives out there.

Making unsubscribing as difficult as possible – bad marketing examples #3

I stumbled on a Facebook ad the other day that promised to reveal a “secret”: how to make money from people who meant to unsubscribe from your newsletter. The lengthy ad copy promised to spill the beans on how marketers can “profit when people unsubscribe from emails”, including reasons “why ‘Manipulation’ is a GOOD word in email”. (Hmm…)

How can consumers avoid this?  

Don’t fall for special offers that are shown to you just after you hit the ‘unsubscribe’ button.

How can ethical marketers avoid this?

Just…don’t do it. People who unsubscribe from you are unlikely to be your ideal client, anyway. Make unsubscribing pain-free and fast. This is also wise from a GDPR point of view.

Secret recipes and “bait and switch” tactics – bad marketing examples #4

Some “experts” claim that their way is the only way to success, especially in social media marketing. Take this with a huge pinch of salt. Snake oil peddlers still exist, and you don’t want to be one of them – or fall prey to them.

There’s nothing wrong with taking courses and learning from others. You can learn a LOT from good people out there. But, you don’t need to pay thousands for “secret success” recipes that probably only work for the gurus’ bank accounts. 

What these secrets often include are engagement pods, which are against many platforms’ terms and conditions and will harm you in the long run.

Something else to be wary of are ‘bait and switch’ tactics, where you sign up for a free course but then discover that it’s really only one big sales pitch.

So, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

How can consumers avoid this?  

Run a mile if you read about “the only” or “secret” way to achieve success. Politely decline any ‘bait and switch’ offers and state your reasons.

How can ethical marketers avoid this?   

Even marketers with decades of experience won’t have one secret recipe for success. Avoid marketing groups that pretend they do and join ethical marketing movements instead.

False guarantees – bad marketing examples #5

An Instagram connection of mine gave me another example of serious malpractice. Reassured by a course provider’s influencer status and money-back guarantee (apparently “for any reason”), she signed up for a digital marketing course at a whopping cost of £1,500. 

The course turned out to be very poor indeed. However, it was impossible to get the money back. The course provider simply claimed that they had fully delivered the course and there was no reason to complain. Sadly, my contact and some of her fellow course participants felt that this provider was simply “too big” to fight:

“What a waste of money. […] They promised so much but delivered very little. Total hype.”

How can consumers avoid this?  

Do your research carefully. Influencer or celebrity status doesn’t guarantee quality. In terms of money-back guarantees, if you have proof that a service or product did not fulfill its promises, you should first contact the provider with your grievances and any evidence you can supply. 

Certainly, if the provider claimed that you could get your money back “for any reason”, you should have a good case. It’s wise to keep screenshots of what the provider promised you initially to back up your claim. 

If this doesn’t work, please follow the steps in the next section on how to get your money back.

How can ethical marketers avoid this?   

Again, ensure you provide value for money. Take complaints seriously. Not only could consumers give you a terrible reputation through negative online reviews, but they could take you to court. (Of course, concrete evidence of malpractice has to be provided in all cases to justify any action against you.)

How to be reimbursed if you’ve fallen prey to any of these bad marketing methods

If you have a good case, always contact the service provider politely first to try and resolve the situation directly. Ensure you have plenty of evidence why their product or service didn’t fulfill their promises. 


Then try the following:

If you paid with certain credit cards, you may be able to provide evidence of malpractice to your credit card provider and get the money back through them if they agree with you (this is called a “chargeback”).

If a “chargeback” is not an option and if the provider doesn’t refund your money directly, contact the Citizens Advice Bureau in the first instance (for UK consumers). European consumers who bought a service abroad could try the UKECC helpline. US consumers may be able to file a consumer complaint.

Each country will have its own way of settling disputes between consumers and service providers, so make sure to check online how to do this.

Money isn’t everything

Yes, unethical marketing tactics sell and these bad marketing examples are everywhere in online business these days. That’s why they’re being used. But it’s not all about money, even in marketing.

Building your target audience’s trust is worth more in the long run than any quick sale you could have achieved with these unethical tactics.

There is a way of marketing ethically. As long as you keep your consumers’ and your own best interests in mind, you won’t go wrong:

  1. Create the best possible product or service.
  2. Make sure you don’t under- or oversell it.
  3. Market it without using dodgy tactics.


You’ll reap the benefits in the long term. 

Bad marketing examples – join the conversation

Do you have more examples of bad marketing methods or tactics or have you inadvertently used them in your own business? Please comment below or contact me via the channels in my bio at the end of this article.

About the author

Claudia Kozeny-Pelling is the owner of Translate Digital Marketing. Claudia is a professional translator, copywriter, and ethical social media marketer. Her website is linked above and you can also follow her on Instagram.

A variation of this article was first published at